“What is youth? A dream. What is love? The content of the dream.” – Søren Kierkegaard (Another Round)
To use the word ‘unprecedented’ to describe 2020 has become an exasperated cliche at this point, but the sentiment remains true, particularly for the film industry. Never had the very practice of going to a cinema been called into question, and never had so many big-budget blockbusters been kicked down the road for future release, or worse still downsized for the small screen and a release on streaming.
HBO Max hardly made matters any better when they announced an exclusive deal with Warner Brothers in December 2020, a deal which would see the studios entire 2021 film lineup being released simultaneously in cinemas and online upon their release. It was a monumental move that shifted the goalposts of mainstream cinema, with several directors, including Christopher Nolan, coming out to voice their disapproval.
With that being said, just like the fabric of filmmaking in 2020, the absence of significant titles, at least in the first half of 2021, has seen the emergence and proper publicity of some more minor independent successes from across the world.
Spanning multiple genres, featuring releases from five different countries and director’s from a variety of backgrounds, the first half of 2021 has certainly already provided us with some cinematic triumphs. Let’s take a look at the year’s very best so far, discounting the main contingent of Oscar contenders that have already been long-admired…
The best films of 2021 so far:
10. Palm Springs (Max Barbakow, 2021)
The Groundhog Day-inspired time-loop narrative has seemingly become popular once more, revitalised by Happy Death Day and the Oscar-winning short film Two Distant Strangers among others.
Though Max Barbakow reinvents the sub-genre in Palm Springs to the extent where it feels totally fresh and new, repackaging the concept in a fun rom-com starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti as two wedding guests who get caught in perpetual celebrations. Managing to avoid cliche, and instead, embrace creative ingenuity with good humour, Palm Springs nods towards Bill Murray’s 1993 classic with its feet firmly in contemporary culture.
9. Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry (R.J. Cutler, 2021)
An icon of millennial culture, Billie Eilish is a fascinating figure whose music amplifies the fears, anxieties and successes of a contemporary generation.
Cutler’s documentary may be a glazed analysis of Eilish and her brother’s working process, though it provides a fascinating insight into the culture of her family as well as her intimate relationship with her own music.
With seven Grammy awards already under her belt and a coveted record in the title sequence of the latest James Bond film, Billie Eilish is a captivating individual with an emotional maturity way beyond her years. Cutler’s film has captured such an evolution, significantly marking her cultural stomp on the influence of contemporary music.
8. In The Heights (Jon M. Chu, 2021)
From writer Lin-Manuel Miranda, the mind behind the famous theatre phenomenon, Hamilton, as well as Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the original 2008 Tony Award-winning play In the Heights, the film adaptation is a joyous success straight from the minds of the story’s creators.
Fueled by dazzling musical set pieces, In the Heights follows Usnavi, a sympathetic New York bodega owner, who saves every penny he earns to work for a better life for his community, singing every step of the way. The pure energy of Jon M. Chu’s film is its greatest asset, merging second-perfect choreography with catchy, zestful songs to make for an endlessly watchable contemporary musical classic.
7. State Funeral (Sergey Loznitsa, 2021)
Exploring Joseph Stalin’s cult of personality in the USSR, Sergey Loznitsa’s State Funeral is a mesmerising historical account, using found-footage to form a terrifying insight into life under totalitarian rule.
Depicting the grand, elaborate spectacle of Stalin’s state funeral, Loznitsa gives us a patient, fascinating glimpse into a key moment of 20th-century history. As much a film as it is a piece of genuine historical importance, this Russian documentary meticulously captures the reactions from each corner of the country, seizing the sentiment of a society under a stranglehold.
6. Some Kind of Heaven (Lance Oppenheim, 2021)
Looking into the wild world of America’s largest retirement home, Lance Oppenheim’s documentary Some Kind of Heaven is a strange, ethereal and highly enjoyable piece of cinema.
The lives of the people of ‘The Village’ are lovingly explored by Oppenheim who captures their lives in cinematic bliss, presenting a place of fabricated commercialism where people surrender their freedom. It’s a strange, disorientating piece of cinema that depicts the lives of individuals who willingly take a handful of ‘blue pills’, questioning could ignorance really be bliss?
5. Supernova (Harry Macqueen, 2021)
A contemporary symphony of love, Harry Macqueen’s Supernova is led by the poignant performances of Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth, crafting a heart-wrenching film of passion and nostalgia.
The story follows Sam (Firth) and Tusker (Tucci) travelling across England in a camper van to visit friends and family from their past, as following Tusker’s dementia diagnosis, the memories of old are all they have. The powerful drama deconstructs the acceptance of personal catastrophe whilst waiting for its disastrous effects to take hold, it’s an emotionally draining experience that showcases career-best performances from Firth and Tucci.
4. After Love (Aleem Khan, 2021)
20.7 miles is all that separates English Dover from the port of Calais, though perceptively this distance feels a lot larger, particularly in Aleem Khan’s heart-wrenching story of human emotional crisis, After Love.
Following the sudden departure of her husband, the film follows Mary (Joanna Scanlan) discovering her former lover’s mysterious second life in his wake. Whilst many films explore the meaning of love during a relationship, as the title of Aleem Khan’s film suggests, After Love masterfully examines the unpredictability of what’s left afterwards. Well articulating the intimate tussle between two conversing identities, Mary’s character drifts like the lapping waves of the Calais beach, utilising overwhelming grief to sculpt for herself a new image and sense of purpose. It’s a captivating journey.
3. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, 2021)
Describing her own films as “just glimpses of people passing through” in a 2014 interview with The Guardian, Kelly Reichardt has created a film of subtle beauty in First Cow.
The story follows a skilled cook who joins a group of fur trappers in Oregon, only to make any real connection with a Chinese immigrant seeking fortune, with the two splintering off to make their own successful business.
Reichardt is painstaking in making every detail of her films just right, and First Cow is no exception. Christopher Blauvelt’s camera work gives the necessary significance to the most minor action or object, which works perfectly with this script. The look of the film is augmented by a dreamy folk music-inspired score by novice composer William Tyler and a carefully naturalistic set design. It all makes for one of the year’s finest films.
2. Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Zbanic, 2021)
This stunning war drama from Jasmila Žbanić tackles the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 with heavy emotional power and a stunning lead performance from Jasna Đuričić.
For a younger generation, you’d be forgiven for not knowing about the massacre of 1995, but Zbanic’s film does exactly what every historical account of political violence should make the viewer research, learn and remember the horrific past event. Quo Vadis, Aida? Is a stunning piece of filmmaking, analysing the horrors of civil war and political structures that keep us confirming, with the power to tear us apart.
1. Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg, 2021)
Thomas Vinterberg’s stunning piece of cinema is a rousing call for personal revolution, a study into individual mental health and the frivolity of youth. It’s an intense and heartbreaking piece of filmmaking that retains its ability to entertain.
It’s a plot that sounds as if it would be reserved for a bombastic stoner comedy, following four high school teachers who each agree to consume small amounts of alcohol on a daily basis to see how it affects their social and professional lives. Revealing deep-rooted fears, anxieties and past regrets, Another Round exposes the repressed emotions inside us all, showing how in the act of ‘letting go’ you can find liberation and your own undoing.